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How Leaders and Coaches Cultivate Purpose at Work

On Satya Nadella’s first day as CEO of Microsoft, he sent a letter to every employee. He started it by explaining what drew him to work at this company – and why he stayed. He shared his belief that his work at Microsoft could help make the world a better place. He ended the letter with an invitation to each employee to, like him, find meaning in their work.

Finally, I truly believe that each of us must find meaning in our work. The best work happens when you know that it’s not just work, but something that will improve other people’s lives. – Satya Nadella

Nadella could have focused on market share or share price, or the need to stay nimble in an extremely competitive industry, but he didn’t. He chose to cut through the noise of all that and focus instead on something deeply personal and heartfelt: finding one’s meaning and purpose at work.

As it turns out, Nadella’s intuition, to direct his employees to discover the deeper meaning of their work, – was coming from his own inner need for meaning amidst personal experiences of tragedy. He says he owes the deep clarity of purpose he has found to his eldest child, Zain, 21, who is severely disabled. He was born weighing only three pounds, having suffered asphyxiation in utero; as a result, he is visually impaired, has limited communication, and is quadriplegic. Zain’s journey is a constant reminder of what really matters in life.

In fact, Nadella believes meaning and empathy are core to the innovation agenda of the company. He seems to have unleashed something very powerful within Microsoft employees. Under Nadella’s watch, the company has transformed rapidly, shifting focus from the Windows business to newer technologies including cloud computing and artificial intelligence. In 2017 alone, Microsoft’s shares jumped 35%, the highest in the company’s history.

What makes Nadella such a relatable and compelling leader is his ability to help his employees engage at work in a way that feels profoundly different.  Jobs are more than tasks, they are meaningful contributions which will make a difference in the lives of others. He helps his employees tap into their unique contribution to improving the world.

Why meaning at work matters

  1. People who say their work is meaningful and/or serves some greater social or communal good report feeling a greater sense of wellbeing, and possess important qualities organizations need and want. For example, people who find meaning in their work tend to work harder, and are more innovative, creative, engaged, and impactful team members.  (Arnold, Turner, Barling, Kelloway, & McKee, 2007; Sparks & Schenk, 2001).
  2. Millennials are 5.3X more likely to stay when they have a strong connection to their employer’s purpose.
  3. 73% of employees who say they work at a “purpose-driven” company are engaged, compared to just 23% of those who don’t (PwC 2016).

Companies like Microsoft understand that when employees believe their work has meaning they are more committed, creative, and innovative. Indeed, when employees can see their connection to a higher calling it unleashes positive energy and motivation. Catalyzing innovation and teamwork is at the heart of success.

Leaders and coaches can help employees see meaning in their daily work.

Unfortunately, fewer than a third of business leaders help employees connect their own purpose to the work of the company. This is a huge lost opportunity.

It’s a myth that finding meaning in our work requires giving everything up to pursue some lofty “other” career. The truth is that no matter what job you hold there are opportunities to tap into meaning and purpose. Leaders and coaches can help employees understand the important contribution they are making right now, by showing how we are all interconnected and interdependent.  For example, the manager who reminds the line technician that the power line he connected is enabling a child dependent upon an oxygen machine to breathe more easily.  Or the supervisor who points out to the call center employee that she helped someone secure travel in time to be with family for a joyous occasion.

Even people who work in professions which seem full of meaning, such as healthcare or education, often experience a lack of meaning and purpose. However, there are practices which can help anyone reconnect to meaning in their work no matter what job they have.

To discover more meaning in your work try this:

Think of three things that happened during the day that went well and your unique contribution in the positive outcome, then jot down those three things.

According to research, best results for this exercise come after fourteen consecutive entries, so be consistent and give it a little time to take effect.

This practice helps you to focus on the meaningful events of your day and what your unique contribution was to the event.  By doing this practice you learn to tune in to moments that may otherwise be overlooked but are quite significant when it comes to meaning and purpose. Research shows that paying attention to three good things each day builds deeper sense of meaning and wellbeing and fosters a mindset of gratitude.

As a coach or leader, you can develop additional ways to help connect your employees to meaning based on the unique offerings of your business. What is the ultimate benefit to your clients or customers? Does someone experience greater health, happiness, or fulfillment as a result of your work or products? If so, clarify what that benefit is, and remind your employees what’s at stake, and how their role contributes. Finally, it helps to give employees an opportunity for ownership of work projects. If they can initiate ideas and follow through on them to see the ultimate results, that is an incredibly powerful motivating factor to further connection and engagement, and ultimately materialize in elevating the greater good.

 

 

 

Recommended Resources:

 

 

Interested in helping others tap into their purpose? Our new Daniel Goleman Emotional Intelligence Coaching Certification is now accepting applications. This in-depth program, akin to a professional degree, draws upon a range of evidence-based concepts and practices, including the Emotional & Social Intelligence framework. Coaches will gain meaningful new insights to impact their personal and professional lives while elevating their expertise.

 

 

 

 

If you would like to learn more about the fundamentals of Emotional Intelligence, our series of primers focuses on the twelve Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competencies, which include Coach and Mentor, Inspirational Leadership, and Teamwork. The primers are written by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis, co-creators of the Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competency Model, along with a range of colleagues, thought-leaders, researchers, and leaders with expertise in the various competencies. Explore the full list of primers by topic, or get the complete collection!

 

 

 

 

For more in-depth reading on leadership, What Makes a Leader: Why Emotional Intelligence Matters presents Daniel Goleman’s ground-breaking, highly sought-after articles from the Harvard Business Review and other business journals in one volume. It features more than half a dozen articles, including “Reawakening Your Passion for Work.”

 

 

 

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Why Focus is a Foundational Skill for Emotional & Social Intelligence

“Directing attention toward where it needs to go is a primal task of leadership.”  – Dan Goleman

Our ability to focus is under siege now, more than at any time in recorded history. The level of distraction through technology and social communication is unprecedented – and not just for millennials. It is imperative for leaders to grasp the fundamental importance of directing focus where it needs to go.

Focus paves the way for the development of Emotional Intelligence.

Focus is a foundational skill for emotional and social intelligence. Without it we are distracted, directionless, and disconnected from the world around us. This has deep implications for leadership. Indeed, the ability to listen, and pay attention meaningfully is critical to nearly every metric that matters in the workplace.

Cumulatively, in the U.S., we check our smartphones more than 9 billion times per day (Deloitte 2017). We reach for our phones, or look at our smart devices in meetings, while waiting in line and even in the middle of a conversation with a colleague.  Much of this behavior is automatic. Everyone understands the pull of attention with the intermittent gratification of a text or tweet – and though we may not fully realize or admit it, we struggle with this at work, and at home.  At times, it can feel hopeless, but it need not.

We can grow the muscle of attention regulation with small daily practices.

Developmental psychologists tell us that our ability to witness our own minds—our thoughts and feelings—resides in networks mainly located in the brain’s executive centers in the prefrontal cortex, just behind the forehead. Strong, disruptive emotions, like anger or anxiety, flow from circuitry lower in the brain, the limbic system (the primary structures within the limbic system include the amygdala and hippocampus). The brain’s capacity for “just saying no” to these emotional impulses takes a leap in growth during ages five to seven and increases steadily from there (though it tends to lag a bit in the emotional centers during the teen years).

The ability to be mindful of impulse—to stay focused and ignore distractions—can be enhanced by the right guidance, and by consistent practice. Mindfulness meditation practices are an excellent, always accessible, and free, method to strengthen our focus.

One way to begin to hone your attention is with “micro-practices” of mindfulness, such as by taking a 3-minute breathing space. This short, yet powerful practice offers a quick way to bring our minds purposefully online and strengthen the attention muscle-sort of like doing a mental push up.  Set your timer for 3 minutes if that helps.

 

 

Mindfulness helps cultivate focus, which creates emotional ease and deeper relationships.

The ability to notice where our attention is going, for example, that to recognize we are getting anxious, and to take steps to renew our focus rests on self-awareness. Self-awareness is a key domain of emotional intelligence. Such meta-cognition lets us keep our mind in the state best suited for the task at hand.  Of the many ways of paying attention, two are especially important for self-awareness:

  1. Selective attention lets us focus on one target and ignore everything else.
  2. Open attention lets us take in information widely – in the world around us and the world within us – and pick up subtle cues we otherwise miss.

Why is this important? It matters because being aware of ourselves, others, and the wider world goes offline when we are distracted. With the onslaught of stimulation from devices we need to learn to notice when we are distracted and intentionally remind ourselves to show up and focus. Here. Now.

The full extent of the emotional and financial toll distraction is taking is still not fully understood, but we are seeing early signs that it is devastatingly high. In fact, this month, two big Apple investors came out publicly stating that iPhones and children are a toxic combination. They are asking the company to be more socially responsible by helping parents limit cell phone use with technology settings they can easily activate, to turn phones off, or limit use.

The implication for leaders is clear. It is important to create a working environment that promotes the cultivation of focus.

Leaders can actively support their employees by creating structures and processes within the workplace that encourage mindful use of devices and mindful listening. For example, having people agree to not look at cell phones during meetings, leading a brief breathing space meditation at the beginning of a huddle, or setting guidelines on work emails afterhours and on weekends.

There is clearly great value for organizations who take the lead in helping their people cultivate these skills. Research found that among leaders with multiple strengths in Emotional Self-Awareness, 92% had teams with high energy and high performance.  In sharp contrast, leaders low in Emotional Self-Awareness created negative climates 78% of the time. Great leaders create a positive emotional climate that encourages motivation and extra effort, and they’re the ones with good Emotional Self-Awareness.

References
Deloitte. 2017. 2017 Global Mobile Consumer Survey: U.S. edition. Survey, Deloitte.

Goleman, Daniel. 2013. Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. NY: Harper.

Goleman, Daniel, and Richard Davidson. 2017. Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body. New York: Penguin: Avery.

Goleman, Daniel, Richard Davidson , Vanessa Druskat, Richard Boyatzis, and George Kohlrieser. 2017. Emotional Self-Awareness: A Primer. Northampton: Key Step Media.

 

Recommended Reading:

Daniel Goleman’s CD Cultivating Focus: Techniques for Excellence offers a series of guided exercises to help listeners hone their concentration, stay calm and better manage emotions.

The Triple Focus: A New Approach to Education provides educators with a solid rationale for incorporating focus-related skill sets in the classroom to help students navigate a fast-paced world of increasing distraction, and to better understand the interconnections between people, ideas, and the planet.

Our new series of primers focuses on the 12 Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competencies, including Emotional Self-Awareness, Adaptability, Influence, Teamwork, and Inspirational Leadership.

The primers are written by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis, co-creators of the Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competency Model, along with a range of colleagues, thought-leaders, researchers, and leaders with expertise in the various competencies – including the author of this article, Ann Flanagan Petry. See the full list of primers by topic, or get the complete collection!

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Focus: Your Greatest Ally in Managing Conflict

Focus is an important skill for leaders.  Yet, it is extremely difficult to remain focused at times when emotions are high. For example, who hasn’t experienced feeling disregarded, discounted, dismissed, or just plain dissed by a boss or co-worker?  Even if no words are exchanged, emotions like anger and hurt flare up.  Whether the threat comes from a real or imagined interaction hardly matters. The primitive part of the brain developed specifically for survival reacts. Known as the amygdala, this almond-shape set of neurons plays a key role in the processing of emotions, especially fear responses.

Threats of any kind including feeling disregarded or discounted cause us to quickly lose focus. Yet, focus is our biggest ally when it comes to responding wisely to conflict. You may think of focus as directing your attention to one thing while filtering out other things. However, research shows that focus is more complex than that. In fact, we focus in different ways for different purposes. Each of these types of focus is critical when it comes to conflict management.

Different Types of Focus

The various types of focus fall into three broad categories. The first two—focusing on self and focusing on others—help you develop emotional intelligence. The third, focusing on the wider world, can improve your ability to devise strategy, innovate, and manage organizations. These ways of paying attention are vital to navigating individual and team interactions. Happily, you can become a more focused leader with the right kinds of practices[1].

Being able to train your attention inward on yourself is the first type of focus, and it’s at the heart of self-awareness.  In fact, it is considered a foundational practice for development of emotional intelligence. Inner focus helps you understand the weather patterns of your own mind, and choose how to respond in any given moment – especially amidst turbulence.

Focusing on others, the second type, correlates with empathy. The ability to consider another person’s point of view is a critical skill in all relationships. It is central to our ability to connect with others.

Global or systems thinking is the third type of focus. It is especially important in the development of social awareness. This requires deliberate cognitive effort to disengage from default mental habits in order to focus more broadly and with fresh eyes.

Focus in Action

Consider the story of a colleague. Jack presented his project to a group of senior executives and, when one of them dismissed his data as “all wrong,” he was flooded with anxiety.  His heart was racing, and his mind was playing out worse case scenarios… even imagining being kicked off the project.  Yet, he had enough practice in mindfully tuning into his thoughts, feelings and physical reactions, that he noticed the anxiety quickly. Crazy as it sounds, simply noticing his own anxiety lessened it.  He intentionally chose not to let fear of failure take over. Painful as it was, he leaned into his anxiety and stayed focused on the person challenging him. He asked for more information and agreed to revisit his data.

This wouldn’t have been the case just a year prior.  Indeed, Jack was prone to outbursts, especially when he felt someone was questioning his work.  His default was an expletive laden response.  His objective: overwhelm and overpower naysayers with verbal aggression.

An executive coach was brought in to work with his team because there was a lot of conflict. She was an aikido master, and a psychologist. The team completed Emotional and Social Competency 360’s and as you might imagine, Jack was described by peers as angry, unpleasant, and difficult to work with.  He didn’t deny it.  The coach’s question was simple: “How is that working for you?”  He concluded, not all that well.

With that realization, he set out a plan to deal with his anger. No easy task given he had a lifetime of practice in flying off the handle.  He would now be learning three new habits grounded in focus.

  1. Inner Focus: mindful awareness. He used a smart phone app for daily guided breath and body practices to strengthen concentration and awareness.
  2. Other Focus: He learned about interpersonal focus practices. This required intentionally listening with curiosity. He worked on taking in the perspective of others.
  3. Focus on the wider world or more open awareness. He learned there often wasn’t one right answer, especially given the complexity of his organization. He realized he didn’t need to always have the right answer, either. This freed him up to focus more broadly and as a result he became more creative and could think outside the box.

It took weeks of daily exercises along with personal reflection to build his ability to focus. However, he described seeing results within the first few weeks of initiating the plan.

Basically, he began to feel in control – like he had better options. He recognized he didn’t have to be at the mercy of his emotions.  Being able to direct his attention where he wanted it and keep it there despite difficult conversations or stressful projects was empowering. Even discovering that humans are wired for survival and that we need to override basic reactions to false threats was hugely eye opening for Jack – it became less personal and more about using all the tools he had at his disposal.

By making focus an ally, leaders can more gracefully navigate turmoil. No matter what the source of the turmoil, whether it is internal, like two competing priorities, or external such as a disagreement with a client or co-worker, it pays to be able to choose where to put your focus.  With practice, you can direct your attention for your own and others benefit.

Recommended Reading:
Conflict Management: A Primer

In Conflict Management: A Primer, Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and colleagues introduce Emotional Intelligence and explore the many facets of approaching conflict management with skill and positivity.

In a relatively short read, the authors illustrate how to frame conflict as an opportunity rather than a burden, how to maintain bonds despite differing perspectives, and how to blend mindfulness and thoughtful analysis into professional relationships that work.

 

 

 

 

[1] Daniel Goleman, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, 2013; Daniel Goleman and Peter Senge, Triple Focus: A New Approach to Education, 2013.

Ann Flanagan Petry

Ann Flanagan Petry is a Positive Organizational Development Consultant, Coach, and contributing author of the new book Advancing Relationship-Based Cultures. She has over 20 years of experience driving performance improvement in organizations.

Ann partners with leaders to cultivate resilient, mindful, emotionally intelligent teams who improve their own and their client’s or organization’s performance and well-being.  She has published articles on popular news sites including Fulfillment Daily and enjoys paying it forward through volunteer work and supporting professionals as an active mentor with Everwise, an online service connecting executives who volunteer their time with people looking for mentorship.  She is also a mindfulness instructor with the Mindful Teacher Foundation.

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How Empathic Concern Helps Leaders in Crisis

 

There are three types of empathy, according to researchers.

  • Cognitive empathy or perspective-taking is the capacity to consider the world from another individual’s viewpoint.
  • Emotional empathy is the kind of empathy in which you physically feel the emotions of the person you are interacting with. You connect with someone in a way that you take on their emotions.  Emotional empathy makes someone well-attuned to another person’s inner emotional world.
  • “Empathic concern” is the kind of empathy that moves people to action, and is the motivation behind our efforts to reduce the suffering of another.

There is a growing dialogue about the importance of empathy, specifically, “empathic concern” in the business community.

Once marginalized as not relevant to the hardscrabble world of shareholder value and the bottom line, empathy is taking center stage. In part, because we are learning that we do ourselves and workplace culture a huge disservice by trying to wall off our emotional selves.  Empathic concern is like an activating agent in a chemical process. Its presence or absence makes or breaks interactions.

From the research (see below), we know empathy is related to leadership emergence and effectiveness, and empathic leaders have followers who experience less stress and have fewer physical symptoms. Indeed, leaders high in the empathy competency will be more successful at motivating and leading their employees, and helping their employees cope with workplace stresses. They will be more attuned to their customers’ wants, have higher customer satisfaction, and be more innovative.

Empathic Concern in Action…

Consider an HR leader in the Asian offices of a global tech company, charged with leading a reduction in workforce.  In late 2008 the economy was severely hit by the financial crisis and the technology sector suffered deep losses. At a large high visibility tech company, reports of impending layoffs created a contagion of anxiety.  The Asian offices were quickly immersed in tumult because Korean labor law makes it nearly impossible to lay workers off. It was unheard of.

However, the Korea VP embodied social intelligence and empathic concern. He had a great deal of self-awareness and felt enormous pain for the circumstances his employees were facing. When he started having one-on-one’s with those who were impacted, he intentionally decided he would be “real.” He set aside business script and simply met with his fellow co-workers honestly, revealing how profoundly he cared. He told them he would do his best to advocate for them in negotiating separation packages and other benefits such as outplacement services. During the one-on-one’s, he noticed that he was tearful, which was culturally unorthodox, especially during the negotiation of severance packages. Despite behavioral norms, he didn’t hold his feelings back.

What happened next was surprising.  Because he showed authentic empathic concern, employees were much less antagonistic.  In fact, the whole negotiation process got easier, and the laid off staff signed the separation documents.  There was still healing that needed to happen, but it was much less divisive than it might have been.  Employees remarked that they didn’t feel it was personal. They believed the VP was doing the best he could for them.  It was a powerful example of the importance of sincere empathic concern and humble leadership during organizational crisis.

Experiences such as a financial crisis and a major workforce reduction are leadership crucibles. The most extraordinary leaders, when faced with crises, take time to ask themselves what matters most. In this case, the leader felt what mattered most was the lives of the people he worked with.

References:

  1. Boyatzis, Richard E. “Possible contributions to leadership and management development from neuroscience.” Academy of Management Learning & Education 13, no. 2 (2014): 300-303.
  2. Goleman, Daniel, Richard E. Boyatzis, and Annie McKee. Primal leadership: Unleashing the power of emotional intelligence. Harvard Business Press, 2013.

Recommended reading:

Our new primer series is written by Daniel Goleman and fellow thought leaders in the field of Emotional Intelligence and research. See our latest release: Empathy: A Primer for more insights on how this applies in leadership.

For personal interviews, see the Crucial Competence video series!

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Culture Development: How to Cultivate People for Organizational Success

culture development

 

I love the cartoon in which a stalwart CEO sitting behind a desk says to his employee “I want a coherent new corporate culture that will take us into the third millennium and I want it by this afternoon.”

Indeed, culture is at the heart of competitive advantage, particularly when it comes to sustaining high performance. Yet, while business leaders recognize culture’s crucial role, research indicates that fewer than 10% of companies succeed in building a winning culture. 

Notably, there is often a blind spot when it comes to culture development.  Simply stated, it is nearly impossible to develop culture without developing ourselves, the people who make up the organizational culture. 

For precisely this reason, the new book, Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Culture is provocative reading.  In the book, Harvard researchers, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, deconstruct the cultural assumptions, norms, and behaviors of three highly successful companies who have charted a new and disruptive path to organizational success. Bridgewater, Next Jump, and Decurion provide examples of positive deviance when it comes to people and culture development.

These organizations see culture development as integral to their business success. Everyone, not just leaders or high potentials, in these organizations is engaged in personal developmental practices, such as minding the gaps between where they are currently and where they aim to be relative to any number of Emotional Intelligence Competencies, including Emotional Self-Control.

Kegan and Lahey are co-founders of Minds at Work, which helps individuals, teams, and organizations make personal and collective change. We spoke with a member of the Minds at Work leadership team, Co-Director,  Deborah Helsing. She shared the following illuminating stories of deliberately developmental organizations (DDO’s) and how they embed Emotional Intelligence skill building into their organizational cultures:

Bridgewater

At Bridgewater, an institutional fund management company, people talk openly and honestly about the pain that can be triggered by really looking at our own internal barriers and the root causes for why things happen at work. They refer to an equation to remind themselves and each other why they do this every day:  Pain + Reflection = Progress.

They even have an app that is standard issue on their company-provided iPads, “the Pain Button.”  This tool allows employees to record and share experiences of negative emotions at work””especially times when one’s ego defenses are activated by specific interactions with others. Open sharing of these experiences then triggers follow-up conversations among the parties as they seek to explore the truth of the situation and identify what individuals might do to directly address the underlying personal causes. This practice is aimed at helping people “get to the other side,” a Bridgewater term for working through ego defenses, neutralizing the sting of having your mindset questioned, and coming to actively manage forms of emotional self-protection that will otherwise be barriers to personal growth. 

Next Jump

Next Jump, an e-commerce company, upholds the belief system behind its culture with the equation: Better Me + Better You = Better US. By broadening the notion of a “learning organization,” Everyone Culture makes the case that any workplace can be a site of deep personal development (especially Emotional Intelligence).

The onboarding process at Next Jump gives new employees a very intense introduction to the organizational culture. Because that culture differs so markedly from that of other organizations, Next Jump has found that helping people adapt as soon as they start work is the easiest time to accelerate their growth. 

For their first three weeks, all new employees including those who come with years of experience and success, and who are moving into senior leadership positions attend what Next Jump calls “Personal Leadership Boot Camp,” or PLBC for short.  The program starts with participants learning to identify their character weaknesses, what Next Jump calls their “backhands.” The metaphor comes from tennis.  Everyone has strengths (our forehand), but in order to be a great tennis player, you cannot  rely solely on your forehand.  You must also work on your backhand, the areas where you feel less comfortable, less natural, or less skillful.

Another practice at Next Jump is The Situational Workshop (SW), which leaders of the company believe is among the most effective things they do.  Every week for two hours, five people meet: two different pairs of Talking Partners come together with a more experienced colleague acting as a mentor-coach. Charlie Kim, founder of Next Jump, identifies what he thinks makes this kind of weekly workshop structure powerful:

At this weekly workshop, each of the four of you describe some challenge you’ve met at work in the week and what you’ve done to meet it, or not. You might not be sure if how you handled the situation was optimal or not. The mentor-coach is there to encourage you to reach a higher level of self-awareness, so that you might identify new options for responding to similar future challenges and so avoid reacting in the same old way…. Over time, you see people growing immensely from these weekly sessions. 

As Charlie explains about the SW’s purpose, the focus is “on the training of judgment, rather than on technical training.” As a result, the discourse and pace of a SW can be a bit surprising to a first-time observer. People are identifying “problems of practice,” snags they run into, but the coach’s response is rarely direct problem-solving. All Next Jump’s practices are geared to help people change from the inside out. Solving problems too quickly, without the benefit of uncovering underlying assumptions means You won’t change. If you don’t change, you are most likely going to be reproducing new versions of the same problem you think you’ve already solved.

What it takes

Many workplaces attempt to foster the growth of their employees, but few are deliberately organized to put employee growth at the very center of their mission like these organizations do. Kegan and Lahey describe three dimensions of DDO’s that reinforce one another. Edge, home, and groove. These refer to taking risks in working on a skill that involves self-management (edge), for example, while having the benefit of trustworthy communities (home) and regular practices and routines to establish new habits (groove). These three dimensions’ closely mirror Boyatzis’ Intentional Change Theory, which emphasizes the importance of experimentation and practice within a safe community.

The takeaway here is that wherever you are in your work life you can begin to make meaningful progress toward your own development. For example, find a peer who has a similar intention to strengthen the Emotional Self-Awareness and Emotional Self-Control competencies. Be willing to be vulnerable with one another about the real challenges inherent in change, and look at our own shadows. Commit to weekly or bi-weekly check-ins to build the muscles of EI over time. This small yet powerful step can yield profound results.

If you are a manager or supervisor, you could create your own DDO team. Make time in team meetings to engage in EI skill building. Foster a team culture of non-judgement and psychological safety allowing people to bring their full selves, including growing edges out into the open within the team. Provide meaningful, positive feedback and celebrate small increments of change.

Recommended reading:

Developing Emotional Intelligence competencies is one of the best ways to facilitate culture development in your organization.

Our new series of primers was created by bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence Daniel Goleman, along with fellow thought leaders in EI, research, and leadership development.

You can find the first 3 in the series available now: Emotional Self-Awareness, Emotional Self-Control, and Adaptability.

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Improve Your Attention Span Through Self-Awareness

attention-span-self-awareness

attention-span-self-awareness

Improve Your Attention Span Through Self-Awareness

By Ann Flanagan Petry

“You think because you understand ‘one’ you must also understand ‘two’, because one and one make two. But you must also understand ‘and’.” – Rumi

In the workplace, we often fall into just the trap that Rumi describes. We think that because we understand how to be busy accomplishing tasks (one) we also understand how to be effective in our work (two). So, we focus on agendas, “to do” lists, and clearing out our in-box. But when we do that, we are missing out on the quiet yet critical, “and” in the equation: the powerful force of mindful self-awareness.

Attention span is the length of time you’re able to concentrate on a single activity before becoming distracted. The longer you’re able to sustain attention, the more likely you are to gain depth and quality in things like learning or creating. This impacts work and life in a myriad of ways, from increasing productivity to being able to express the best of what we have to offer. But how can we improve our attention span effectively?

Self-Awareness is a Verb

Self-awareness is often referred to as a static state within leadership competencies: “he has self-awareness.” In other words, he has met this competency and we can check “goal met.” However, it is important to recognize self-awareness is really more of a verb and refers to an ongoing process. To understand this more fully, take a moment and tune-in to your own mind and body right now… What do you notice? Indeed, recognizing what is happening in any given moment – from the inside out – can be a bit of a shock. Someone once described it as hearing one insult after another. Others have said it was like an endless barrage of complaints… what isn’t working… what isn’t good enough. Beyond being aware of the internal narrator, we might notice other things, like the tension we are holding in our bodies or the incessant urge to stay busy – to be productive.  This is self-awareness. Remarkably, our inner experience is ever changing and shifting. Awareness of this reality is at the heart of the self-awareness competency.

The Challenge of Continuous Partial Attention

In fact, the cultivation of the competency of self-awareness is becoming more critical for 21st century leaders. To understand just how important, consider the increasing regularity of lack of self-awareness occurring in daily life. Linda Stone coined the term Continuous Partial Attention (CPA). Stone, a former Silicon Valley executive, honed her leadership skills at both Apple and Microsoft. She discovered this from observing leaders all around her. Continuous Partial Attention coupled with fear of missing out (FOMO) is the new normal. We take our smart phones out at the slightest hint of a wait, whether it’s at the grocery store or the stoplight. Both terms describe a recent human phenomenon: a constant state of anxiety and hyper-vigilance to attend to texts, social media, and email… all at the same time!

To demonstrate this further, a survey of Canadian media consumption by Microsoft concluded that the average attention span had fallen to eight seconds, down from 12 in the year 2000. We now have a shorter attention span than goldfish, the study found.  Attention span was defined as “the amount of concentrated time on a task without becoming distracted.”  Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft believes human attention is “the true scarce commodity” of the near future.  Daniel Goleman describes the impact of “the impoverishment of attention” in his book, Focus, The Hidden Driver of Excellence.

Self-Awareness as an  Inner-Rudder

Notably, according to Goleman, “self-awareness, particularly accuracy in decoding the internal cues of our body’s murmurs, holds the key” and is an inner-rudder that can bring us back to deepening attention. As a result, numerous organizations are explicitly coaching and training employees in awareness skill-building. The organizations range from multinational corporations to city governments.

Inspired by the work of neuroscience researcher, Richard J. Davidson and his vision to “imagine a world where we could improve our capacity to pay attention by even 5%,” Sara Flitner, former Mayor of Jackson, Wyoming, together with the support and funding of the Wellness Department at St. John’s Medical Center (SJMC)  partnered with the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Center for Healthy Minds to offer research-based practices in well-being and leadership development. Together, they undertook a community-wide initiative to bring this content and learning to elected officials, school administrators, as well as hospital and town leaders.

Also of note, a large professional services firm engaged the Center for Healthy Minds to train hundreds among its leadership ranks. Michele Nevarez, a positive organizational development consultant and adjunct faculty with the Wisconsin School of Business helped facilitate the neuroscience-based leadership training for Jackson’s leaders and the firm. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Nevarez believes the sessions met a critical need of bringing key stakeholders together to apply practices that strengthen attentional focus and promote renewal. This can help to combat the daily information overload and allow for better coping with the stresses of everyday life, which if left unmanaged can undermine well-being.

The challenge of Continuous Partial Attention and information overload is a common and tremendously difficult problem that is growing with each new wave of technological capabilities. Yet, we are discovering people are adaptive and have agency to choose how and what to pay attention to.

Try this:

Choose a time of day, or trigger activity (such as for 10 minutes before or after eating lunch) and check in with yourself. You can even schedule this on your calendar for reminders and to insure you’re not interrupted. What do you feel in your mind and body? A sense of hurry to get back to work? Unease from lack of sleep or lingering emotion from disagreement with your spouse? The simple act of tuning in and noticing what comes up is, in essence, the practice of tapping into one’s emotional self-awareness and attention. With regular practice, this can help deepen and lengthen attention span by rewiring the brain to be more at ease with less reactivity to external impulses. It will also help to combat the daily information overload, allowing for better coping of the stresses of everyday life.

Ann Flanagan Petry is a Positive Organizational Development Consultant, Coach and Contributing Author of the forthcoming book, Advancing Relationship-Based Cultures. She has over 20 years of experience driving performance improvement in organizations. She partners with leaders to cultivate resilient, mindful, emotionally intelligent teams who improve clients, their own and their organization’s performance and wellbeing. 

Recommended Reading:

Interested in learning more about Emotional Self-Awareness? Our newly released Primer provides a concise overview of this Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competency. It is co-written by several thought leaders in the field of emotional intelligence, leadership development, and research: Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, Vanessa Druskat, Richard Davidson, and George Kohlrieser. See the Primer here.